At the close of 2016, exciting news of the first ever captive bred Hawaiian Cleaner Wrasse available to purchase from Quality Marine spread throughout the reef hobbyist world. The Hawaiian Cleaner Wrasse (Labroides phthirophagus) has long been a popular choice for experienced aquarists as their bright colors and personalities round out tropical saltwater tanks. The research team responsible for this breakthrough in captive breeding of ornamental fish is the Oceanic Institute of Hawaii with support from Rising Tide Conservation. With recent criticisms echoing conservationists fears of unsustainable practices in the aquarium trade industry, the development of another tank bred species of aquarium fish shows the industry progressing towards sustainability.

Brief Background on Hawaiian Cleaner Wrasse (HCW):

Hawaiian Cleaner Wrasse (left) cleaning a reef fish.

In the wild, Hawaiian Cleaner Wrasse are prevalent in coral reefs that are located in surge zones. As their name suggests, the primary role of HCW in a reef system is to clean other fish and kept the reef looking sparkly clean. They have been known to set up their own cleaning stations where they will feed on the parasites, mucus, and the dead skin of other reef fish. Hawaiian Cleaner Wrasse are endemic to Hawaii, meaning the only place in the world they are found is along the Hawaiian island chain. Though Hawaiian Cleaner Wrasse are collected from the wild for the aquarium trade, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) has listed them as a species of least concern in regards to vulnerability to extinction. This is largely due to the fact that an estimated two-thirds of the HCW population resides in a large marine protected area off mainland Hawaii.

Additionally, HCW collected from the wild are difficult to maintain in a tank because of their diet and lifestyle, thus limiting the demand for them. However, with the development of tank bred HCW it is expected that they will be slightly easier to care for as they were raised on a different diet than what they would experience in the wild. Captive breeding this species will not only result in ensuring that they stay unthreatened by population decline but also allow them to be enjoyed by a wider audience of aquarists.

Importance of Tank Bred Hawaiian Cleaner Wrasse:

In a statement released by Quality Marine, they highlight the importance of having tank bred HCW as, “this is the first time Labroides phthirophagus has been reared in captivity as a result of this project, and it is yet another triumph Oceanic Institute and Rising Tide Conversation as they continue to make strides in aqua-culturing an even more diverse collection of species”.  Over the past decade aquaculture has grown tremendously both in the food fish and aquarium trade industries, proving to be one of the main tools used to propel the industries towards sustainability. More specifically, breeding species in labs has become an integral part of the aquarium trade and has been supported by various conservation groups.  In this particular case, HCW were successfully raised and bred at University of Hawaii’s Oceanic Institute with help from Rising Tide Conservation, who envision aquaculture as the solution to promoting sustainability in the aquarium trade.

At the Oceanic Institute, they raised Hawaiian Cleaner Wrasse in tanks feeding them a variety of common food that hobbyists would be familiar with. The lab grown HCW consists of: enriched brine shrimp, frozen cyclopeeze, commercial weaning diets, and even flake food. The tank bred HCW developed normally and this diet seemed to produce, regular healthy fish who even displayed their natural cleaning habits. It was observed that after 40 days, the HCW started cleaning the tank and looking for dead debris to eat, while still on their lab diet. The HCW reared in the Oceanic Institute’s lab have all the qualities of their wild brethren, with one exception: they can successfully be sustained on a more normal diet of food. This means that it is much easier to obtain and feed these HCW, making them a much better candidate for saltwater tanks than their wild cousins. The fruits of Rising Tide Conservation, Oceanic Institute, and Quality Marine’s project to breed and raise tank grown HCW have been sweet as they have introduced more scientific knowledge to the field, provided a sustainable supply of HCW to reef hobbyists, and further laid the groundwork for the continuation of aqua-culturing species in the aquarium trade.

Captive Breeding Success Stories of 2016:

The process of captive breeding species that normally exist in the wild comes with a litany of challenges, but the payoff can mean saving a species. Though the HCW itself is not in peril, there have been many other fish species this year that were dwindling due to overfishing or habitat degradation, until aquaculture gave them a second chance. Here is a brief compilation of the success stories of 2016:

  • Pacific Blue Tang – Tropical Aquaculture Laboratory, Fl
  • Yellow Tang – Oceanic Institute
  • Milletseed Butterflyfish – Suffolk County Community College
  • Yasha White Ray Shrimp Goby – Roger Williams University
  • Carribean Blue Reef Chomis – New England Aquarium
  • Coral Beauty Angelfish – Kathy Leahy
  • Yellow Belly Damselfish – Mathew Carberry

This list is just the tip of the iceberg. There are now 330 captive bred marine aquarium species that are available for purchase, which is incredible for a relatively young industry such as aquaculture. The gradual movement towards sustainability through the growth in diversity and number of tank bred species available each year shows remarkable progress in the industry and projects a bright future for reef hobbyists and the organisms they care for.


Photo 1 –

Photo 2 – University of Hawaii